Niagara Falls is a 90-minute drive outside Toronto, Ontario in Canada. From Vermont, it’s more like a 9-hour drive. So I knew when I visited Toronto last spring that it was going to be my best opportunity to see Niagara Falls. In fact, it was my number one priority for my trip.
I had three options for getting there:
- Take public transportation (Megabus seemed to be the cheapest option), which would allow me the most freedom once I was there.
- Rent a car (after seeing what traffic was like going in and out of Toronto, I’m really glad I didn’t choose that option).
- Book a day tour.
My initial preference was to go by Megabus, but I ran out of time to plan it in the weeks leading up to my trip. I’m a Type A planner. “Flying by the seat of my pants” causes me enormous stress. My body doesn’t deal with stress very well. A few days before I was to leave for Toronto, there were still several aspects to my trip that I hadn’t nailed down, and I was having a major meltdown. In an attempt to cut down on some of that stress, I decided to let someone else do the work for me on my day in Niagara Falls. So I booked a tour.
Here’s my gripe about day tours to Niagara Falls from Toronto: They all offer essentially the same itinerary. No matter who you choose, you cannot just book a tour that takes you straight to Niagara Falls. It will also include stops at Niagara on the Lake, at a local vineyard for wine-tasting, and at the Floral clock. I didn’t want to do any of those things. I just wanted to go to Niagara Falls and spend as much time there as possible. That wasn’t an option. So even though it’s a full day tour, you only spend a couple of hours in Niagara Falls. This is a shame, in my opinion. But it is what it is.
Once I realized all the tours offered the same itinerary, I naturally wanted to get the best price I could. My research turned up a company called Chariots of Fire. They had great online reviews and one of the best prices ($60 per person, which included either a Maid of the Mist tour in Niagara Falls or admission to the Skylon Tower).
When I booked my tour and told them where I was staying, I was instructed to meet the van and guide at 33 Yonge Street for pickup at 7:20 am for a 7:30 departure. It was only a few blocks’ walk from my hotel, and there were four or five of us who were picked up there. But then we drove from there to Dundas Square where we waited for 25 minutes for everyone else participating on the tour. Had I known there would be such a long wait there, I’d have just taken the metro to Dundas Square so I wouldn’t have had to leave my hotel so early. C’est la vie.
That was really the only hiccup in the day, though. Our tour guide, Joe, was a fun, decent guy with what I came to think of as a very Canadian sense of humor—in other words, polite. Clean, a bit corny, not laugh-until-you-cry humor, but definitely amusing. (Think Martin Short.) He demonstrated his wacky Canadian sense of humor at the Whirlpool Falls overlook on a group of tourists in the cable car approaching our (Canadian) side of the riverbank.
He told us, “Watch me psych them out.”
As the car approached, he started waving his arms at them and shouting “Welcome to the U.S.A.! We love foreigners here! As long as you have your passport, you’re welcome to come into the U.S.! America welcomes you!”
The people on the cablecar looked very confused.
Most importantly, he somehow managed to make sure we stayed on schedule all day. This is a rarity for day tours. From the get-go, Joe let us know that he had to stick to the schedule and if anyone didn’t return to the bus on time, they’d have to catch a very expensive taxi back to Toronto. Tough love? Maybe, but it worked.
The only time we had a straggler who held us up, it was Joe! He got caught in traffic on his way to pick us up at the end of the day and was about 15 minutes late. We teased him about it, telling him “We were about to leave without you!” He thought that was amusing, since he had the bus with him.
Joe was also very smart about the weather. Because the morning was overcast with sprinkles, he switched the order of activities so that in the morning we visited the Floral Clock, the power station, Niagara on the Lake (where we had an hour to wander and grab lunch on our own) and a vineyard where we stopped for our wine-tasting. By the time we reached Niagara Falls a little after noon, the weather had cleared up and it became sunny, allowing us to really enjoy our time there and get good photos.
As much as I didn’t care about stopping anywhere other than Niagara Falls, I have to admit that Niagara on the Lake is a cute little town. With only an hour here, I hated to squander it on lunch, but that’s what I had to do. I went to a cafe recommended by Joe, a diner where they understood our time constraints. The service was quick and friendly, but the food was nothing to write home about.
The wine-tasting stop was interesting, too—probably more enjoyable for people who like wine. According to Joe, there used to be about 12 wineries in the Niagara region; today there are 150. We stopped at Diamond Estates, a vineyard in which actor Dan Aykroyd is an investor. Despite my initial disinterest in this stop, I will say I learned a lot about ice wine from the woman who led the wine tasting.
Facts About Ice Wine
- The reason ice wine is so sweet is because the grapes are allowed to dehydrate on the vine, which concentrates the sugar.
- Most wine is a 3 on the sugar scale (by comparison, maple syrup is a 6). Their ice wine is a 20.
- The reason ice wine is so expensive is because it’s time-intensive. A ton of work goes into producing a small amount (much like maple syrup).
- Ice wine grapes are harvested in freezing temperatures, by hand, at night. Ugh. Can you imagine? You couldn’t pay me enough to take that job.
I’ve already written about my time in Niagara Falls itself (“The Two Faces of Niagara Falls” ). It was as spectacular as I expected it to be (and a bit tackier), I just wish I’d had more time there. Those of us who chose to go up in the Skylon Tower had 35 minutes there while everyone else was dropped off at the first level of the Falls. Those 35 minutes went by fast. The views were incredible.
Joe picked us up promptly and brought us down to the Falls to join the others. We had 20 minutes at the first level before it was time to head downhill. (So the people who didn’t go up in Skylon Tower had about an hour at the first level.) At this point, everyone but me went on the Maid of the Mist Tour (I didn’t want to get my camera wet), and I had a free hour to wander and take photos.
I didn’t do a head count, but I’d say the tour size was about 35 people. Only one other guest was traveling solo, an older man. It was a very multicultural group—two families of Indians, some Asian twenty-somethings, Canadians, Americans. I chatted with an Irish couple for a little while who were on the last leg of a North America tour. They told me they take two vacations per year for a month at a time (where do I sign up for their jobs?) and use them to travel to fairly exotic locations—Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Argentina being just a few.
If you’re certain you want to take a day tour from Toronto to Niagara Falls instead of getting there independently, I can absolutely recommend Chariots of Fire as a good company to book with. Some tour companies offer the same itinerary for much higher prices, and I have no idea why. If I’d had more time to plan my trip, I would have preferred to take the Megabus and spend as much time in Niagara Falls as I wanted, but since I had to take a tour, I feel I picked the right one. I have no regrets and lots of positive memories (and great photos!) from that day.